Informational Hygiene

‘Informational Hygiene’ is a concept dreamt up by Neal Stephenson in his classic cyberpunk novel ‘Snow Crash’. Stephenson riffs on the idea of memes as mind viruses; his conceit is that memes exist with the power not only to propagate themselves and convey ideology as a side-effect, but to destroy the minds which play host to them. Ancient cultures, plagued by these mind viruses, developed forms of cultural protection against them:

Monocultures, like a field of corn, are susceptible to infections, but genetically diverse cultures, like a prairie, are extremely robust. After a few thousand years, one new language developed – Hebrew – that possessed exceptional flexibility and power. The deuteronomists, a group of radical monotheists in the sixth and seventh centuries B.C., were the first to take advantage of it. They lived in a time of extreme nationalism and xenophobia, which made it easier for them to reject foreign ideas like Asherah worship. They formalized their old stories into the Torah and implanted within it a law that insured its propagation throughout history – a law that said, in effect, ‘make an exact copy of me and read it every day.’ And they encouraged a sort of informational hygiene, a belief in copying things strictly and taking great care with information, which as they understood, is potentially dangerous. They made data a controlled substance.

Information hygiene has developed a life beyond the pages of this book. [it’s not the only concept to do so — Snow Crash is also the book that inspired Google Earth]. It has a slighty creepy feel, but the principle is sound. The processes inside your head depend on what you put into it. So you should be careful about what you read, for example — an idea, even one you consciously disagree with, will have mental side-effects.

You could take informational hygiene as an injunction not to read, say, racist or sexist rants. I’m not so bothered about that side of things; I believe you can reject such ideas more-or-less consciously.

Informational hygiene is more interesting to me in the context of the attention economy. Political, social and cultural developments are dictated not just by what people believe, but by how much time they spend talking and thinking about it.

If a European spends all her time reading about politics in America, for example, she’ll end up feeling alienated and disempowered. She has few levers with which to change policy in another country, so learning in detail about it is a waste of intellectual and emotional effort. Better to learn about a topic she can affect, and the ways she can affect it.

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